Monday, March 3, 2014

Six Simple Networking Tips

You are at a happy hour. You know you are supposed to do this thing called "networking." Someone told you to have business cards and a spreadsheet. But how does this whole affair work? Here are some of my tips from the trenches.

1) Avoid the two-minute conversation. 

This is kind of like shooting blindly into a forest and hoping to hit a deer. The conversation will go something like this:

[Scene: You are awkwardly standing alone. So is someone else. You accidentally make eye contact and suddenly have to communicate.]
"Hi, I'm Danny."
"Hi, I'm Joe."
"Hi Joe, what do you do?"
"I do X, what do you do?"
"I do Y. Where are you from?"
"I'm from A. How about you?"
And so on and so forth. What X, Y and A actually are does not matter, because you probably will not remember either way. Think about it- you will have this conversation ten more times tonight if you are aggressively networking,

2) Talk about something you will actually remember.

Instead, try to break up the routine questions by looking for something you may have in common. Mutual friends? Family from the same area? Connections to similar colleges or organizations? Heck, I've made hour long conversations out of people who visit my hometown (Houston Texas) for business. Have a story instead of a business pitch, and the other person may remember you as a human being and not as a networking automaton.

3) Quality, not quantity.

Aggressively shaking hands, leaving a trail of robotic conversations and business cards in your wake, will not build a real connection with your new-found colleagues. So instead of rushing through a two-minute pitch with your networking target, try shooting for a ten minute conversation with them. Imagine you are at a bar on a date. You can't just leave- you have to see the conversation through. Besides, two minutes does not give you enough time to show a narrative to your conversee, and that narrative is far more important to selling yourself than what you can read off of a resume. Pick talking to two-three people at an event over 10-20.

4) The art of the business card.

The first time I bought business cards, I was excited. Everybody would have my contact info and follow up with me, making networking easy. But the first event I went to, I did not hand out a single card. They lingered in my coat pocket. Why? I did not know what the heck to do with them! It is awkward to end the conversation. Treat it like door knocking in politics. If you hand the piece of literature out, at least half the time they will take it. If they throw it away afterwards, who cares? The social psychology of it means they are likely to give you their business card too; the artificiality of handing them a business card is just as awkward for them as it is for you.

5) Master the out.

This is easily the worst part of networking for me. Sometimes dates go bad; sometimes you really don't want to talk to someone. You will not be compatible with every human on this earth, so don't feel guilty if you want to cut your losses and switch conversation partners. Either look for a friend and make some excuse ("I'm going to go check on my friend now, it was good to talk to you!") or just be direct ("It was great to talk to you, I'm going to say hi to some other people now.") Yes, those quotes sound awkward. Just own it and move on.

5) Follow up on your contacts.

After your event, send a quick email. Say it was great to meet them, mention some detail you would only know from chatting with them, and tell them you hope to see them soon. If you cannot remember a detail to put in, the contact is probably (though not always) not worth keeping. Do not call them the day after unless you had a good reason to do so- an email is enough.

Barely anyone actually follows up on business cards, so you doing so will make you that much more memorable to the people you reach out to.

6)  Digitize your contacts.

Do not dare leave your business cards abandoned after your networking event. Open up Google Drive and type the name, email, phone number, and some note about who in the heck that person is into your spreadsheet. When you get enough names, start subdividing those contacts into categories of interest (I have politicos from different states in different spreadsheets, for example). If you do this process enough, you may want to invest in a scanner for your business cards.

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